Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Be Mindful of What Makes America Great

Supreme Court justice discusses gender equality, immigrants’ rights and freedom of speech at George Washington University.

February 24, 2017

Justice Ginsburg image

Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussed her career with Nina Totenberg of NPR. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Ruth Steinhardt

The United States is experiencing a dark political moment, but there is hope in the long term, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Thursday.

“We are not as mindful of what makes America great,” she said before a packed and enthusiastic audience at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, citing “the right to speak one’s mind out” and “our nation being receptive to all people” as sacrosanct American tenets.

But Justice Ginsburg told NPR’s Nina Totenberg that she remains optimistic.

“Our history has been so long I think we will preserve both of those: the right to think, speak and write as we believe—and not as Big Brother government tells us is the right way to think—and welcoming our neighbors,” she said.

She herself was a beneficiary of America’s welcome for immigrants, she said. “My father was able to leave the Old World when conditions were not good to come here and make a living and raise a family," the justice said. "That is America to me.”

Justice Ginsberg joined her official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, and Ms. Totenberg in a discussion co-sponsored by the Newseum and the Supreme Court Fellows Association.

Loosely structured around “My Own Words,” Justice Ginsburg’s published collection of writings and speeches, the conversation ranged from the justice’s career highlights to her personal life.

The second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsberg was personally subject to the gender discrimination she would make her reputation fighting professionally. She graduated from Columbia Law School at the top of her class but struggled to find a clerkship. She had married a year after graduating from Cornell University, and potential employers saw her 4-year-old daughter as a liability. And when she became a professor at Rutgers Law School, she was one of less than 20 women appointed to a tenure-track faculty position at an American law school.

The double standard existed long into her career, Justice Ginsburg said.

When she was general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, she was called repeatedly into her son’s school over the behavior of her “lively” younger child. On a final occasion, exhausted from all-night brief preparation, she told the principal, “This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls.”

“After that episode, the calls came barely once a semester,” Justice Ginsburg said. “Not that there was any change in my son’s behavior—but the school was much more reluctant to take a man away from his work than a woman away from hers.”

Justice Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 and spent several years after the departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006 as the only woman on the country’s highest bench. The presence of colleagues Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor “makes a great difference,” Justice Ginsburg said.

“We are one third of the court,” she said. “We look like we are there to stay—and anyone who has observed an argument knows that my newest colleagues are not shrinking violets.”

And Justice Ginsburg offered measured praise of potential future colleague Neil Gorsuch, whom President Donald Trump has nominated to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ginsburg’s close friend Antonin Scalia in 2016.

Mr. Gorsuch is “very easy to get along with,” Justice Ginsburg said. “He writes very well.”

Still, she said, the process of nomination is “not what it should be” in the present political climate. Justice Scalia, she remembered, was unanimously confirmed in 1986, while she herself did “slightly less well” with just three votes in opposition.

“My hope is that I will live to see the day when the Senate operates that way again, instead of these fierce partisan divides,” she said.

Justice Ginsburg, who will be 84 in March, even detailed her fitness routine: an impressive hour-long ritual that includes pushups, planks and elliptical training. And she coolly reassured the audience—who gave her two standing ovations—that she is in no hurry to retire.

“I have said many times I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam,” she said. “And when I can’t, that will be the time I step down.”